Pollan’s Food fallacies

Food Rules, by Michael Pollan“Don’t overlook the oily little fishes,” is rule 32 in Michael Pollan’s small book, “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” (Penguin Books, 2009). I recently acquired a copy. I’ve read Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and have his In Defence of Food on my shelves for summer reading and have two other titles by him on my wish list. I’ve enjoyed his work so far. Maybe not so much this time around.

I am skeptical about any attempt to reduce any subject to a set of basic rules because life is way too complicated for that sort of ideology. I have a particular disdain for self-help books and life-coach videos as being intellectual pablum. Pollan’s book is self-described on the back cover as “a definitive compendium of food wisdom.” Hyperbole like this always makes me cautious and raised my skeptic’s hackles.

As the New York Times points out in its review of the book, is a professor of science journalism in the USA, not a biochemist or nutritionist or even a renowned chef. But Pollan is a good writer with credentials, so I decided to give it a chance.

As someone interested in eating and food – from many aspects: historical, social, botanical, zoological, industrial, cooking and ethical among them – I am always keen to learn more and read what others say about eating. In Food Rules, Pollan offers sixty four rules with a brief explanation of each (you can read the whole list here). It’s described on the book jacket as as “indispensable handbook” full of “straightforward, memorable rules for eating wisely.”

Well, I beg to differ. Yes, it has some wisdom – especially for the junk-food-sugar-pop-and-energy-drink-pizza-and-doughnut crowd. But some of it is the same sort of ideological, anti-science claptrap you get from the Food Babe or the anti-GMO crowd. Diaphanous piffle, some of it. And way too arbitrary – at least when you read just the rule without bothering to delve into his (sometimes too brief) explanations that follow it.
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Montaigne’s library

I read yesterday that Montaigne had a library of 1,000 books, of which he was very proud. It was his retreat – the room he went to where he wanted to get away from things and write.

Machiavelli, too, had a study with a small collection of books he treasured, albeit a much smaller selection. Both, however, treasured the classic Greek and Roman authors, the wisdom of the ages.

One thousand books is a remarkable collection, given that printing was barely a century old, and books were still quite expensive. He would have treasured every volume and known each title by heart. His library was in a round tower, so he had the bookshelves specially built to fit against the curve of the walls.

On the ceiling beams, Montaigne had sayings carved into the wood; Latin and Greek quotes from the classical authors to inspire him. One of these is from Pliny the Elder:

Solum certum nihil esse certi, Et homine nihil miserius aut superbius.

Which in English reads: Only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain, And nothing is more retched or arrogant than man.

I can imagine myself in that room, with its works by Seneca and Cicero and Catullus and Aristotle looking down on the writing desk where Montaigne sat. It’s peaceful to even imagine it.

I don’t know how many books are currently in my own personal library; perhaps five or six times that number, maybe more, and I have had many, many more books pass through it in my lifetime. Many of them are mass market paperbacks, but more are hardcovers. Some are treasures 75-100 years old. Some have been with me for many decades (and in my collection are some of my father’s boyhood books, like the Boy’s Own Annuals I used to read when I was a child).

While our libraries are vastly different in subject matter and content, I think I share Montaigne’s pride in having a good, well-rounded personal library.

Whenever I go to anyone’s house, I always check their bookshelves. It may be judgmental of me, but I measure people by their libraries. Not so much by subject, but rather by seeing that they like to read, and read a lot. And books are perfect conversation starters; no one is lost for a mutual topic when you can discuss a book or an author.

Many years ago, when I was doing freelance work for a Toronto computer company, the owner told me he hadn’t read a book in years. That affected me so deeply that I have never forgotten it. I don’t think I have ever been able to say I haven’t read a book in days, let alone years. What a sad, empty existence he must have had.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus AureliusI continue to be profoundly moved by the wisdom of the classical authors. It’s often hard to accept that some of them were writing two or more millennia ago: many seem so contemporary they could have been written this century.

Of late – within the past year or so – I’ve been reading Lucretius, Aristotle, Horace, Cicero, Seneca, Pliny the Elder*… and more recently Marcus Aurelius.

I’ve had a couple of versions of his Meditations (written ca. 167 CE) kicking around on my bookshelf for decades. I’ve dipped into it many times before today, but never really read it for more than some pithy, salient, quotable lines. These translations have all been 19th century ones. This week I started reading a more recent Penguin edition (trans. Maxwell Staniforth, 1964) and was duly impressed and delighted at how much crisper and clearer it reads than the somewhat florid, older ones. So much so that I recently ordered an even more modern translation from Amazon (George Hays, Modern Library, 2003) and started on it, too.

In part my hesitation in the past to read more of the classics has been due to the rather dense prose that many of my translations offered – most of them being published originally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Great in their day, they see archaic and stilted today. The newer, modernized translations make these works much more approachable.

For example, here’s the George Long (1862, reprinted in the Harvard Classics series, 1909) translation of the opening of Book XII:

ALL those things at which thou wishest to arrive by a circuitous road, thou canst have now, if thou dost not refuse them to thyself. And this means, if thou wilt take no notice of all the past, and trust the future to providence, and direct the present only conformably to piety and justice.

And here is an 18th century translation by Hutcheson and Moor:

All you desire to obtain by so many windings, you may have at once, if you don’t envy yourself [so great an happiness.] That is to say, if you quit the thoughts of what is past, and commit what is future to providence; and set yourself to regulate well your present conduct, according to the rules of holiness and justice.

Compare these with the 1964 translation by Maxwell Staniforth (Penguin Books):

All the blessings which you pray to obtain hereafter could be yours today, if you did not deny them to yourself. You have only to be done with the past altogether, commit the future to providence, and simply seek to direct the present hour aright into paths of holiness and justice.

Here’s the 2003 Hays’ translation:

Everything you’re trying tor each – by taking the long way around – you could have right now, this moment. If only you’d stop thwarting your own attempts. if only you’d let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present towards reverence and justice.

I’ve also tended to shy away from reading too much of Meditations in part because he also deals with divinity and soul – and I tend more towards the moral and ethical, the philosophic rather than spiritual, writers. But reading through his book now, the Hays’ translation in particular, I find his spirituality less cloying than I had initially.

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Machiavelli and the Elizabethans

Stephen GardinerIn 1555, Bishop Stephen Gardiner wrote a treatise to King Phillip II of Spain, in which he borrowed (aka plagiarized) extensively from Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Discourses. Gardiner did not credit Machiavelli or attribute any of his quotes, but rather copied some of Machiavelli’s content verbatim or very closely.

This was less than two decades after Machiavelli’s works had been first printed, and before Pope Paul placed it on the Index librorum prohibitorum, effectively banning it in Catholic countries (but also making it more interesting, as any banned book inevitably becomes, thus guaranteeing its publication and translation).

Some two decades earlier, in 1536, Cardinal Reginald Pole wrote his Apologia ad Carolum Quintum. Pole claimed that The Prince was a satire, albeit an evil one (one that exposed the aracana imperii, or secrets of rule). He denounced Machiavelli as being “in league with the devil” and that Il principe was “written by the finger of Satan”:

In the Apologia ad Carolum Quintum (1539) Reginald Pole claimed to know, on the basis of a conversation with Thomas Cromwell some ten years earlier and subsequent inquiry into Cromwell’s views, that Machiavelli’s Il Principe had been the inspiration behind Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome, declare himself head of the church, and seize the property of the English monasteries.*

That suggests The Prince was well known by Cromwell, and possibly even by Henry himself. Who supplied Cromwell with a copy of the work is unknown, but Pole had been in Italy in 1529. However, 1529 is too early for a printed copy: the first printed edition of The Prince was 1532. Perhaps he obtained a hand-copied edition.

Pole’s Apologia, however, was not published until 1744. It might have been shared among his peers and fellow theologians, but it did not have a wider reach for another two centuries (when it provided leverage for the popular notion of a Machiavellian Henry VIII).*

Nonetheless, this and other contemporary denunciations helped bring Machiavelli’s The Prince to the attention of the English court very soon after its first publication (q.v. The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli, ed. John Najemy, 2010). Ideas spread rapidly during the Renaissance.

By the time of Gardiner’s writing, Machiavelli had been denounced many times, by many more critics (especially by church allies and defenders). He was even declared a “literate atheist” in 1557. That same year, the Inquisition demanded the “utter destruction” of all of Machiavelli’s works. Ironically, this helped spread them faster in an era of intellectual curiosity and questioning or authority (it was the Reformation, after all, so anything the church opposed was consumed with relish by advocates of reform).

Gardiner – Bishop of Winchester under Henry VIII, and later Lord Chancellor to Queen Mary – was a staunch Catholic, but obviously both curious and intellectually intrigued, even by a writer which his fellow theologians like Pole denounced. He died shortly after writing this final work, so his motives were never questioned. However, in Gardiner’s defence, he was writing before Machiavelli was placed on the Index, so there was no official proscription yet.

He wrote this piece in English – surprisingly not in Latin which was the lingua franca of governance and church then, and a language in which Gardiner was fluent. The treatise was translated into Italian posthumously, in 1556, for presentation Phillip II (Queen Mary‘s Spanish husband; Mary was herself to die shortly afterwards, in 1558), then in Brussels. Phillip II, however, could not speak either English or Italian, but was fluent in Spanish, Latin and French.

The translator was George Rainsford, a courtier in the late Henry VIII’s circle. The English version of Gardiner’s work hasn’t survived, but there are two copies of the Italian translation intact (q.v. A Machiavellian Treatise by Stephen Gardiner, by Peter Donaldson, Cambridge University Press, 1975). The treatise is titled “A Discourse on the Coming of the English and Normans to Britain,” and when sent to Phillip II, it was paired with a piece Rainsford himself wrote, called “Ritratto d’Inghilterra” or “Portrait of England.”

Gardiner’s part is structured as a dialogue between two men, in which “Stephano” teaches “Alphonso” about the English historical experience in Machiavellian terms. It is essentially a guide for Phillip II in how to rule England using the techniques Machiavelli described in his books as used by people such as Caesare Borgia.

Had it been exposed before his death, there is good reason to believe other members of the English court would have felt it treasonable. Many in the court feared that Phillip would become king of England when Mary died. Had Gardiner lived, he could have faced serious consequences – even execution – under Elizabeth.

Gardiner read Machiavelli. Who else in his circle also read him? How widespread was knowledge of Machiavelli in Tudor England?

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What’s in a missing word?

HoraceThere’s a line in one of Horace’s epistles that really caught my eye. In Latin it reads:

Utque sacerdotis fugitiuus liba recuso,
pane egeo iam mellitis potiore placentis
Horace: Epistles, Book I, X

No, I can’t translate it.* However, I was reading David Ferry’s 2001 translation and he renders it like this:

I’m like that slave who ran away because
They fed him honey cakes and he longed for bread.

That appealled to me both for my recent passion for making bread, but also for its philosophic – almost Buddhist – intent.

Ferry gives us both the Latin and English, and I struggle to match the original with the English version. And in doing so, something about his translation bothered me. Something missing.

Wikipedia tells us that Horace’s (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) epistle X is about:

The Advantages of Country Life – (Addressed to Aristius Fuscus, to whom Ode I.22 is also addressed). This epistle begins with Horace contrasting his own love of the country with his friend’s fondness for the town; then follows the praise of Nature; and finally the poet dwells on the superior happiness that moderate means and contentment afford, compared with riches and ambition.

Fine. I understand: Horace is saying he prefers the plain life of the country, not the honey-cake life of the city. He doesn’t need the luxuries and the excesses to be content.

Ferry isn’t a literal translator: more of a poetic one. He’s been acclaimed for that, and criticized for it, too, but I like his work. Many English renditions of Latin poetry come across as stilted and forced, while I find Ferry’s work much smoother and reads more naturally (some call it “approachable”). (Read here how other English-speaking poets have variously tackled Horace)

Still, one Latin word in the original stuck out as missing in translation: sacerdotis.

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